Thursday, February 27, 2014

Birthday Week with a Wonderful Friend

This week has been extremely bitter sweet for me.

Jenny and I started the weekend with a trip to Oudong, a necropolis for the past kings of Cambodia. We wanted to spend her last weekend in Cambodia with an excursion of some sort. We decided on Oudong because of its proximity to Phnom Penh. It is about 90 minutes by car and two hours by tuk tuk, we went with the latter. It wouldn’t be an adventure if we opted for a smooth, air conditioned ride. The roads get pretty dusty once you leave Phnom Penh’s city center and to combat the smells and dust, we brought our traditional Kramas, traditional Cambodian scarves, along for the ride. Just last week Jenny was taught how to wear one correctly and we put her new found skill to use.  As you can see from the picture, our hair, mouth and nose were pretty well protected. Needless to say, we got plenty of stares but this just made our ride so much more interesting.

We arrived around 3pm, really the perfect time for a visit because there were barely any tourists and the sun's rays were kinder. It also made the climb up 509 steps much easier. I don’t know if we could have done it in the blistering noon heat. Once we climbed up we could not believe how beautiful and clean everything around us was, it was probably one of the cleanest sites I have seen in Cambodia after the Royal Palace. The details in the buildings were refreshingly different and we could not stop staring. We walked to and from every corner. We met male nuns that take immaculate care of the property. Yes, there is such a thing as male nuns. They are called Ta Tei in Cambodia and are not ordained so they have a lower status than monks. It was a really peaceful experience. 

We ran into our upstairs neighbor in one of the rooms, out of all the places! This room had 4000 Buddha figures from all over the world. I don’t think they were of any significance except that there were 4000 of them in one room. Once we were finished exploring the grounds, our neighbor advised us to visit the nearby Wat. The grounds around the Wat were also really well kept and the Wat was very different from the ones I have seen in Phnom Penh. It also housed about a 100 male monks and female nuns.

We had a lovely day trip and arrived back in Phnom Penh around 6:30pm with enough time to shower and get ready for Jenny’s farewell dinner with friends. Jenny decided on Dolce Vita, an Italian spot in Riverside, for dinner. It was a lovely evening filled with old and new friends and a lot of dancing. At midnight, I officially turned 29 and was embarrassed by my friends who requested the venue to play music for happy birthday so they could sing to me. And then Asghar called and my lovely TEDxJacksonville team wished me a happy birthday. This definitely helped with the homesickness.

Sunday was a lazy day at home. I spent the day catching up on emails and my to dos. In the evening, I decided to indulge and treat myself and Jenny to a delicious birthday dinner at Quitapenas, a Spanish tapas restaurant. Let’s just say I fulfilled my inner glutton’s desires. We had tuna tartare, scallops, fried goat cheese balls, calamari and steak. Jenny and I were in heaven. Having known about my love for good chocolate, Jenny snagged me a giant bar of Swiss chocolate while visiting Singapore. It was such a sweet gesture. And it came with a beautiful card. Those of you that have known me for a while know that I love my cards more than my presents.

This was also my last week with Jenny and it has been really tough to process. We have become great friends and I am not sure how I will go on in Phnom Penh without her. Yesterday was her last night here and we decided we needed to have some new experiences before she could leave. We took the City Bus for the first time, a month long trial public bus system that is actually really efficient and cheap. We went to the roof top of the tallest building in Phnom Penh to catch the sunset and we went to one of our favorite local restaurants and ordered dishes we have never tried before. It was a great night.

She left this morning. I know I will see her in a week in Myanmar and we will definitely stay in touch and visit each other wherever we may be but it is still tough to process. She was my first ever roommate and she quickly became much more than that. I have always been weary about having a roommate but Jenny and I were a perfect match. We could talk about anything and everything because we just got each other. We shared stories about moving to a new country from our country of birth and maintaining our culture while having an identity of our own and always being the different ones. We discussed our parents, our families, our pasts, our hopes for our future and everything in between. Our three months together were wonderful and I will miss her immensely. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Siem Reap & Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the main reason most travelers come to Cambodia. I finally got the chance to go last weekend. When I decided to move to Cambodia, I told many friends to visit but only one took me seriously and actually booked a ticket. Sheena decided to plan a trip to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam because of my relocation. I love that she just went with it! Luckily, I had a 3 day weekend thanks to a Buddhist holiday called Meak Buchea Day. This holiday also coincided with Valentine’s Day and I saw hearts, flowers and teddy bears everywhere but no displays for the Buddhist holiday.  In case you’re wondering about the holiday, I’m not quite sure what it is but it has something to do with monks listening to Buddha’s preaching.  

Sheena arrived in Siem Reap from Thailand and I met her there on Thursday night. I took a half day from work and got on a 12:30 bus with a pretty reliable company called Giant Ibis. They are pricier than the rest but provide modern buses, water, a snack and wifi. Most bus companies advertise the trip as 5 hours long but realistically it is about seven hours. Travelers in Asia learn to add extra time for all their bus trips pretty early on. There is even a formula, add half of the advertised time to the total advertised time. I spent my seven hours chatting with a lovely Australian couple, probably in their fifties, about their visit to Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. They had so many wonderful things to say about Cambodia and were sad to be heading back home to Turkey in a few days. It was refreshing to see an older couple enjoying the joys of travel instead of the usual young backpacker.

Sheena and I stayed at a local guest house called Victory Guest House. It is owned and operated by a Khmer family who are extremely accommodating. They provide free pickup, free breakfast and free water. It was about a 15 min walk to the night market and pub street but we enjoyed the neighborhood and the daily walks.

On our first night we decided to check out Haven for dinner. Haven is a local restaurant that operates as a social business. It has a training program for disadvantaged youths where young adults learn life skills, work training, computer courses, and English lessons. The restaurant also provides each trainee with housing, meals, medical care and an allowance. It isn’t for the budget traveler looking for a $2 meal but you can eat quite well for $4-$6. I had the cashew chicken curry and Sheena had the fish amok. We were both very happy with our choices and thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful ambiance. Their garden is so serene and was the perfect place to share stories and catch up on each other’s lives
. They close pretty early so we continued the storytelling over some drinks at a nearby restaurant.

I couldn’t get a read on the character of the city during our walks because everything revolved around tourism. You really have to dig and go off the beaten path to get a sense of the real Siem Reap. I found myself missing Phnom Penh.

We started our day pretty early in hopes of catching the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Surprisingly, it was really easy to find a tuk tuk at 5am.  And we weren’t the only ones with the idea. The ticket booth was packed with visitors. They offer 1 day, 2 day, and 7 day passes. The pass allows admittance to over 50 temples! We opted for a 1 day pass for $20. The ticket agents make you take a photo and then you get a personal ticket with your very own photo. It was too early for me to put two and two together and as a result I look pretty unenthused in my photo.  

Once we got our tickets, we headed back into our tuk tuk and headed to the Angkor Wat. The tuk tuks drop you off at the entrance and then everyone walks in the dark towards the temple. There were hawkers selling everything from guide books to flash lights. Luckily, there were enough people in the crowd that we just followed them in without worrying too much about where we were going. Once inside at 5:45, we staked out a prime spot to watch the sunrise. There was so much suspense and excitement within the crowd but the whole thing was pretty anticlimactic because of cloud cover.

When we realized the sunrise was not going to be anything spectacular, we decided to start exploring the grounds. We entered Angkor Wat from the left portico and were blown away right at the beginning by the details. Ramayana stories were etched in the walls and their intricacy was amazing. There are also over 3000 apsaras carved into the walls and each one is unique. The UNESCO world heritage site is viewed as a national treasure and it was easy to see why. It was built in the 12th century and covers over 200 hectares. It was a hindu temple at first and then became a Buddhist temple. 

We took our time and explored each and every room open to us. The upper level was closed during our visit. Close to the end of the visit, I got a little present from up above. I felt a small thud on m head and knew what it was instantly. I think I was seven years old the last time a bird pooped on me. Thankfully, Sheena had no problem helping me clean it off my hair. After easily spending, three hours at the temple, we headed back to find our tuk tuk driver to visit the next temple.

Our next stop was the south gate of Angkhor Thom. Dehydrated and hungry, we were too busy eating and drinking in the tuk tuk to notice the beautiful statues. Luckily, our tuk tuk driver called our attention to the gate and told us to take pictures. Only then did we realize where we were and the amazing structures around us. There were 54 gods on the left and 54 demons on the right.

We got back on the tuk tuk and headed towards Bayon, known as the temple of faces. Angkor Wat was interesting because of its size and architecture but Bayon was much more engaging because of all the different faces. We spent about an hour exploring here and the nearby structures. And then things got a little tricky. Our tuk tuk driver pointed at a spot on our map and told us to meet him there once we were done. When we went to the spot, we couldn’t find him. We ended up walking back and forth from the temples to the exit three times in the scorching sun trying to find him. We finally gave up after 45 minutes and spent another 10 minutes bargaining with a new tuk tuk driver. We felt really guilty about leaving our first guy but didn’t know what else to do.

We carried our guilt to our next and final temple, Ta Phrom. It was such a special temple. It has not been restored like some of the larger temples and as a result it has a really mystical feel to it. Trees grow amongst the ruins and the roots have taken over the structure. The environment felt other world like and reminded me of Pan’s Labyrinth. Ta Phrom is also famous because scenes in Tomb Raider were filmed here.

After six hours of temple explorations, we headed back to the hotel. We were exhausted, starving and dehydrated. We decided to go out for a quick lunch before we could get too comfortable at the hotel. We chose Hive Café for lunch, a small café ran by two Australians. I had a vegetable curry pasty with fries and Sheena had the Beef Lok Lak. Both were fresh and delicious. We headed back to the hotel pretty quickly because we were filthy. I was so excited to shower and I don’t think a shower has ever felt so good. We both passed out fairly quickly after our respective showers.

Closer to sunset, we headed out to explore the Old market, Pub Street, Night market and the Art market across the river. During our walk, we kept seeing signs for massages and finally decided to get a foot massage. I opted for a 30 min foot massage and a 30 minute body massage. When it was time for my body massage, I was taken inside and I assumed it would be with oil like the foot massage. I proceeded to take of my shirt and my masseuse started laughing and told me put my shirt back on. That was pretty embarrassing but hilarious at the same time. Like Thai massages, Cambodia massages are with your clothes on and at certain points, they even sit on top of you! The massages were amazing and ridiculously cheap. We only spent $5 for an hour long massage.

For dinner, we opted for a casual road side spot. We went to Mama’s fried rice on the corner of Sok San Street and, you guessed it, it had many different varieties of fried rice. Our meal was simple and each dish was only $2.50. We felt like treating ourselves afterwards and grabbed some ice cream for the walk back to the guest house.

We got a late start on Saturday, well late compared to the morning before. It was nice to wake up around 9 am and enjoy breakfast in the guest house’s courtyard. We really didn’t have a plan for the day except to take it easy.

Sheena’s laptop had stopped working in Thailand and we spotted a certified Apple store during our walks and were hopeful they could fix the problem. Sure enough they did and it only took them all of ten minutes. The best part was they didn’t charge a thing. I was amazed at the amazing customer service and Sheena was happy to have a working laptop again.

The trend of free things kept continuing. We wanted to get our bus tickets back to Phnom Penh from Giant Ibis. When we got to their offices, they would only take money for one ticket and we never understood why. We left with two tickets and were confused about why they would only let us pay for one ticket.

We decided to spend our afternoon at the New Leaf Book Café. It’s a book shop, café, restaurant and a rooftop bar.  And they donate 100% of their profits to local causes. The space is very inviting and perfect for enjoying a quiet read. A colleague had given me a book called, “First they killed me father” by Loung Ung for the long bus ride and I decided to crack it open at New Leaf. Three hours never went by so quickly! My book was engaging and my food was delicious. Sheena and I ordered fried morning glory with rice for lunch and really enjoyed the fresh flavors of our meal. I loved everything about the experience. We only left because a large training group came in for a late lunch and it became too loud for us to read.

Before heading back to the hotel, we decided to visit one of the oldest temples in Siem Reap called Wat Bo. There was a lot construction around the temple, mostly new homes for the monks. This was a nice visit because it was so quiet and there were barely any tourists. It felt like we were discovering it on our own. A local student opened up the temple for us and we got to see some well preserved paintings from the 19th century. Most depicted the story or Rama and Sita. The Buddha statue was also very beautiful. It was also really nice to chat with the teenager and hear about his life.  He was very excited to practice his English with us and hoped to visit America one day.

We headed back to the hotel to seek refuge from the heat and for an afternoon siesta. I really wanted to finish my book and decided to curl up in a papasan in the courtyard of our guesthouse.  The book is an autobiography and Luong, the author and narrator, is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge. She tells us about her family’s move from Phnom Penh to the Cambodian country side with the hopes of escaping death. The story is told from the perspective of a 5 year old and it was so interesting to hear a child’s take on the barbaric period.

While reading the book, our first tuk tuk driver from Friday stopped by to collect his fare. He apparently waited for a few hours for us and finally left around 4pm. I apologized profusely told him we searched for him for over 45 minutes. After apologizing profusely, he took the money and left. I am so glad he came back because I felt really guilty about not paying him.

We had some to kill before our 7pm Beatocello performance. I decided to pass the time by taking a nap while Sheena enjoyed a few episodes of her favorite shows. After a few busy weeks at work, this relaxed pace was such a treat. The concert is free and held every Saturday night at Kantha Bopha hospital. Dr. Richter plays a cello while sharing stories about his work and its significance for Cambodian children. Even though, his work and hospital are extremely important, we left after 45 minutes because the speeches became a little too preachy for us.

We opted to walk back to the town center because the weather was so nice. In the day, you barely walk for five minutes without sweating so a breezy evening walk is such a treat. Tired of Cambodia food, we decided to head to Curry Walla for some Indian. Once seated, the manager came up to Sheena to ask where she was from and gave us some extra attention because she was Indian. I thought it was pretty funny that he did not think I was South Asian. The food was pretty disappointing and we couldn’t understand why it had such great reviews. We called it a night pretty early because we had an early bus back to Phnom Penh the next morning.

I forgot to mention this earlier but another perk of going with Giant Ibis is that they pick you up for free from your hotel. This was great because we didn't have to worry about finding the bus terminal. We enjoyed a light breakfast and were picked up by a Giant Ibis shuttle. I was not looking forward to the seven hour journey but was happy to go home.

During the ride, staring at the countryside had a whole new meaning to me. I am so glad Jessica lent me the book because it was really fitting for the trip. I could imagine thousands of families marching on the dusty roads to the labor camps and villages patrolled by the Khmer Rouge. Another humbling reminder that my life is fairly easy compared to what others have endured. Oh and the bus concierge got a call a few hours into the trip telling him to collect the ticket fare from us so we ended up paying for the second ticket after all.

We arrived back home around 4pm and it was so nice to be back. It was great to experience Siem Reap but I prefer the hustle and bustle of the capital. I never thought I would miss Phnom Penh so much. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Photo Walk in Phnom Penh

Two weeks ago, Jenny and I went on a photo walk around one of the slums in Phnom Penh. The walk was arranged by local group called Photo Walk Cambodia and they arrange meetups about once every 6 weeks. This was a great way to explore a new area of the city while feeling safe enough to capture the highlights on camera. I finally got around to uploading the photos today and have included some of my favorites for you. I hope you enjoy seeing Phnom Penh through my eyes.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Nurturing Young Minds

Back in December, I visited four villages in Kep and Takeo province to check out locations for new community preschools.  When our team got back, we finalized locations based on feedback from the community leaders and the number of kids in each area. Last week, we went back to these locations and saw the final phases of construction for each school. I could not believe it. Usually, in the field of development, you have to wait a while to get results so this was a highlight for me. 

Today was the first day of school! 100 kids will now be able to start preschool in their communities for free. Parents will not have to worry about transportation, materials or school fees. I am still in awe of how quickly and efficiently we were able to pull this off. I can’t begin to describe how excited I am about this. This is why I am came here. It is so rewarding to see this project come to life .

We have two more in the pipeline and will continue to expand if we have the support of new communities and resources to help fund the construction. You might be thinking how can this be sustainable. Well, one of the things I love about Aide et Action is that we don’t come in and try to be the heroes. Instead, we speak to commune and village leaders about their needs. We then come up with a plan of action where they are just as much of a stakeholder as us. They need to get community support, they need to find a teacher, they need to find volunteers to build it and they need to allocate a small portion of their annual budget for education. Once they accomplish these tasks, we help them with teacher training, parent workshops, we provide school supplies and we pay for the construction materials. The school is always called a community preschool, not an Aide et Action school. This helps the community leader in getting support for their citizen and it shows the citizens that they are part of the process.

The goal is to make education a primary and necessary component of every child’s life. If we can convince each parent of this through our preschools then they will continue to advocate for new schools with their local governments and the local governments will push the agenda with the national government and so on.

We are relying on the power of education. It’s ability to empower people because it is a fundamental precondition for economic, social and political development.

COVID Reflections

It's surreal to think we are entering nine weeks of COVID quarantine. I am one of the lucky ones, I still have my job, health and fami...